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Join the War on Plastic with Plastic Free July (+ 3 Ideas for Plastic Free Veterans)

Another year, another Plastic Free July – and the appetite for living with less plastic is stronger than ever! More and more of us are concerned about plastic pollution and more importantly, determined to do something about plastic use in our own lives.

Plastic Free July always swings around at exactly the right time of year. Never heard of it before? Plastic Free July is a free-to-join challenge that runs during the month of July. It encourages us to choose to refuse single-use plastic, and be part of a movement that is not only raising awareness but taking action and sharing solutions.

I first took part in my first Plastic Free July back in 2012, when I was one of about 400 participants. Since then the challenge has grown exponentially, and last year it’s estimated that 120 million people from 177 different countries took part.

If you’d like to be registered for this year’s challenge, you can do so via the official Plastic Free July website.

I’ve written about Plastic Free July every year since my first challenge, and this year is no different in that respect. But I always try to approach it from a different angle, and this year I wanted to reach out to the plastic-free veterans.

There are plenty of articles for plastic-free beginners; I’ve written a number of them over the years. Here is last year’s contribution: 5 Tips to Get Prepped For Plastic Free July (and Living with Less Plastic). (There are plenty more in the archive).

I also created this graphic and accompanying (free) eBook to give you more ideas to get started.

But for those coming back for a second, third, fourth or more year, getting those same beginner’s tips you received in year one can seem a little… well, repetitive.

So today’s post is for you.

3 Plastic Free July Ideas for Plastic-Free Veterans

Find Your ‘One More Thing’ Swap

You’re a pro at bringing your reusable bags to the store, you remember to refuse the plastic straw, you opt to dine-in rather than getting those takeaway containers and you’re a regular at the bulk store. Hurrah!

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still something more to do or somewhere else to improve.

  • Take another look at the contents of your landfill bin and your recycling bin, and see if there’s anything in there that could be swapped out for something plastic-free;
  • Consider revisiting something that you tried in previous years and decided was too hard – maybe times have changed and this year is the year you succeed;
  • Try to make something new from scratch: maybe a food item, a cleaning recipe or a personal care product. That doesn’t mean committing to make it from scratch forevermore! It’s simply about experimenting with change;
  • Maybe there’s something that is too expensive, impractical or time-consuming to become a permanent change in your life, but you can commit to making this change for 31 days during July to show solidarity with the movement and do your bit.

Plastic Free July isn’t just about refusing plastic. It’s about learning new skills, examining our habits and challenging ourselves to do better.

Take the Challenge Beyond Your Own Habits

Those first years, Plastic Free July is all about changing habits, making swaps and settling into new routines. Trying to remember our reusables and investigate all the alternatives takes up a lot of energy, and time.

But new habits eventually become ingrained, and the time we once spent figuring out all of this stuff is freed up again. Plastic Free July is a great time to spread the refuse single-use plastic message to people who haven’t heard of it before.

Maybe that means pinning up some posters at work, or persuading your local cafe and shops to get on board with the challenge.

(You can find the whole range of official Plastic Free July posters – free to download – on the Plastic Free July website.)

Maybe it means giving a talk to your colleagues or your community, organizing a litter pick-up or hosting a movie screening.

Maybe it means writing to companies expressing your annoyance with their packaging and suggestive alternatives, or writing to companies to tell them you love their commitment to reducing waste.

Maybe it means writing to your local councillor or MP to ask them what they are doing about plastic pollution.

Use your voice to speak up for what matters, and share what you know.

Be The Kind of Person You’d Have Liked Supporting You in the Early Days

Chances are, if you’ve been living plastic-free for a while, you’ve ventured down the rabbit hole and discovered a whole heap of twists and turns along the journey.

There are probably plenty of choices you made and things you did back at the start that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t do again.

Try to remember this when you see others making similar choices. You have the benefit of hindsight, and they don’t. Yet.

How would you have felt if you’d triumphantly shared your first plastic-free chocolate bar purchase that took you three weeks to track down, only to be told that a) didn’t you know that particular Fair Trade organic bar is made by a multinational company b) it’s probably not vegan c) haven’t you heard of palm oil d) you didn’t buy it in the supermarket, surely e) did you even look at the carbon footprint?

It’s unlikely you’d feel inspired to continue, that’s for sure.

Part of the journey is trying new things and making mistakes. If you see someone sharing a choice they made that you wouldn’t make, before diving in to “help”, ask yourself: how helpful will it really be for you to share your opinion right now?

This is particularly true on the internet, with people you don’t know. No-one wants to be berated in public by someone they’ve never met and who has no idea about their individual circumstances.

That’s not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t share information. Just be sensitive about what you share, who you share it with and how you share it.

People need time to find their own way. That first Plastic Free July can be overwhelming. As someone who has gone ahead, we can try to remember that, be encouraging, inclusive, and celebrate the small wins of others.

If we want people to feel confident to take the next steps, we need to be supportive with the first steps.

Challenges such as Plastic Free July are not just for beginners, but we all start as beginners. If you are a beginner, I want to assure you that whilst change can be challenging, it is also fun… and very rewarding. Those ahead of you are here to help when you get stuck – we have all been stuck at some point! If you are a veteran, remember that part of our challenge is continuing to push ourselves, not get complacent and help keep the spark alight in those just starting out.

Happy Plastic Free July, everyone!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you a plastic-free newbie? A veteran with one year’s service? Two or three year’s service? Four or more years of service? If you’re a veteran, what do you remember most about starting out? Do you remember?! And what advice would you give to someone taking the challenge for the first time? Any other thoughts or ideas? Please share your comments below!

A Zero Waste, Plastic-Free Living Guide to All Things Jars

Glass jars are almost the symbol of the zero waste movement, and for good reason. Glass jars are super useful, readily available and extremely versatile. If you’ve been slinging your empty jam jars in the recycling, think again!

There are plenty of ways that you can use glass jars, and plenty of places you can pass them on to others who will use them.

No glass jar deserves to be single-use. This is the zero waste life, after all!

Some Uses for Glass Jars

If you have access to a bulk store (where you can put food directly in your own containers to avoid packaging), glass jars are perfect. Ensure the weight of the jar is recorded (you may be able to do it yourself, or you may need to ask a staff member to do it for you) so you don’t end up paying for it!

Shopping this way makes it very easy to unpack straight into the pantry.

Jars can be used for storing food – taking lunch to work, keeping your pantry organized, holding snacks, storing leftovers in the fridge, and storing food in the freezer. Wide-neck jars are more suitable for freezing – ensure the contents are chilled before freezing, don’t overfill the jar (frozen food will expand) and loosen the lid until fully frozen, to allow for expansion.

Jars can be used on the go for takeaway smoothies or coffee. If you want to protect fingers from scalding, make a heat band using elastic bands or charity silicone wristbands, or use fabric.

Jars can be used when making jam and chutney, for preserving and canning. They can be used to make fermented foods like sauerkraut. (In time, the lids will need replacing, but most lids should last a few rounds. For canning you’ll need jars that are suitable for this purpose.)

Jars can be used to store non-food items, like toothbrushes or pens, keep small recyclables like batteries or bread tags, or for freshly cut flowers/foliage.

Jars can be used for keeping cleaning products such as laundry powder and personal care products like moisturiser. Some can be purchased in bulk, or you can make your own. They can be used for candle making.

Jars can be adapted with grater insert lids, pump and dispenser arm lids and sprinkler attachment lids to make them multi-purpose and increase functionality.

Jars can be used as gift packaging (store-bought or homemade treats, soap). A bit of fabric over the jar lid and they look fantastic!

If you’re so inclined, you can even use a glass jar instead of a rubbish bin.

Glass jars replace so many things we have around the house. They are versatile, multi-functional and available everywhere.

Where to Find Glass Jars

The zero waste lifestyle is the second-hand lifestyle, so the ideal would be not to buy any brand new jars.

First, stop recycling your glass jars and save them for re-use. Rescue glass jars out of your friend’s (and family’s) recycling bin. Rescue jars from the office kitchen (the enormous coffee jars that are often found in workplaces are great for food storage). Rescue glass jars from restaurant and cafe recycling bins (you’ll probably need to ask first – this is where I sourced my 2 litre glass jars).

Ask on your local Buy Nothing group, or zero waste/sustainable living Facebook Group. Look at online classifieds such as Gumtree or Craigslist to see if anyone is donating or selling boxes of old glass jars.

Charity shops are a great place to find vintage glass jars, and some of the more fancy/specialist jars such as those required for canning.

If you really need to buy new, consider visiting a local specialist cookware or homewares shop rather than ordering online. Glass is breakable and needs to be heavily packaged to protect it – this will probably mean using plastic.  Then there’s the carbon footprint associated with shipping (glass is heavy).

It is lower waste to buy the jars that have already been shipped to within a few kilometres/miles from your home.

If you can’t bear the thought of second-hand mismatched jars and really need a set that is more pleasing on the eye, plus don’t have time to trawl through online classifieds slowly slowly building up a matching collection, no judgement. Everyone has a mess threshold and if this is what tips you over the edge, do what you need to do. You’ll be using whichever jars you end up with forever – that’s how zero waste works, right?!

Different Types of Jar Lids

The most common jar lids are those from repurposed jars: made of steel with a plastic lining inside to slow down the metal rusting/corroding.  The threads wear over time, so older lids will not give airtight storage. Whilst not plastic-free, the plastic typically isn’t touching the food, and I’m happy to use these as they are readily available at fit the jars I have.

Occasionally you might see aluminium lids, and these have a plastic wax disc inserted to separate metal and contents. The wax disc can be easily removed to create a plastic-free jar and lid.

Some jars have plastic lids. If the jar is a shape I know I’ll use, I’ll keep it, otherwise I’ll pass it on (more details on where at the end of the post).

If you really want to avoid plastic, its possible to find jars with glass lids, that seal with a silicone band. The lid stays attached to the jar with a metal hinge system or with metal clips. These jars are also suitable for canning as the silicone band creates an airtight seal.

Le Parfait is the classic French brand for the hinge lid jars, although many similar versions exist without the visible branding. Weck jars are German, and use the clip system. It is possible to buy wooden lids for Weck jars which seal without the clips – not suitable for canning but more suitable for pantry storage.

Metal jar lids can be recycled via a metal recycler at the end of their life, and new lids can be purchased from specialist kitchenware shops or online without needing to buy a whole new glass jar to go with it. Alternatively, you can find second-hand jar lids.

How to Remove Labels from Glass Jars

If you’re lucky, the label on the jar will peel straight off. If not, try soaking in water for a few minutes. For some labels this loosens the glue and then label comes straight off.

If you attempt to pull off the label and it comes off, leaving a sticky, gloopy mess on the glass in its wake, my tip is to use eucalyptus essential oil. (I’ve been told lemon essential oil also works well.) Dab some onto a rag, and wipe – the glue comes off instantly.

If that’s not an option because even after soaking all you’ve managed to do is fray the outer edges of the label, coconut oil will get that label off. Smother the label in coconut oil, and wait. I usually do this overnight – but this time I have label rage and need a break before resuming the activity! After a few hours, the label will just slide off. Magical!

Of course, you don’t have to remove the labels. But it is a lot easier to see what is in the jars, looks neater, and saves the confusion of eating “mustard” only to find out it is jam, or constantly moving the dried oats to the fridge because the label says “keep refrigerated”.

Finally, on the topic of labels: if your lids are slathered with brand logos or are a rather unappealing shade of green or lurid yellow, you can paint them with blackboard or other paint. You could by replacement lids. Alternatively, you can put up with the marketing in your cupboard.

Labelling your Glass Jars

Now you’ve got the old labels off, time to label with what’s actually in the jar. The contents of the jars I keep in my pantry swap and change all the time so I don’t want permanent lettering and labels. If you do, you could use a label maker, if you have one (it is plastic).

Alternatively you could paint blackboard paint rectangles on the jars, and write on what’s inside as it changes.

If you have sharpies and marker pens at home (I don’t) you can use these.

I use a china pencil – a wax pencil wrapped in paper. I have a black one and a white one. Art supply stores will sell these. I label my jars infrequently – only when I know I can’t tell what it is without the label! I wouldn’t label pasta, for example – but bicarb? That’s a yes.

Alternatively an option is to label on scrap paper or card, and tie the label to the jar with elastic bands or string.

What to Do with Glass Jars When Your Jar Habit Gets Out of Hand

Eventually – dare I say it – we can end up with too many jars. When the pantry is full of glass jars, the bathroom cupboard is also full of glass jars, the cupboard under the sink is overflowing with glass jars, and there are two surplus boxes of glass jars in the garage/shed, it is probably time to let some glass jars go.

There’s really no need to hoard jars. If you suddenly realise that you need more glass jars in the future, you’ll be able to find some, for free, in a matter of hours. Probably less.

Rather than let your excess gather dust, pass them on to someone who can use them straightaway.

Glass jars can be gifted (and even sold) via social neighbourhood network sites, Buy Nothing groups, zero waste or sustainable living Facebook groups and online classifieds – the same places I suggested for looking for jars at the start.

Some bulk stores will accept old glass jars for reuse. They pass onto customers who forget their own containers when they come to shop at the store. Charity shops might accept glass jars, but they will only want the good ones (branded is better), not the ones you fished out of recycling.

Glass jars are like the currency of zero waste. Use them where we can, pass them on when we cannot. Do not throw them away! They are a great reusable vessel, and single-use jars are surely a crime. Why would we go to the trouble of putting a glass jar in the recycling bin, only for it to be transported, ground down, melted and remolded right back into… a glass jar?

The zero waste lifestyle is the second-hand lifestyle, after all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you use glass jars for? What’s the most unusual use of a glass jar you’ve come across? Any tips for finding quality glass jars, or any tips for where to pass unneeded jars onto? Are you a fan of second-hand, or do you buy new? Any other thoughts? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Is Zero Waste Only for the Privileged? (And Does It Matter?)

I’ve received a few emails recently asking whether I think zero waste is a lifestyle for the privileged. After all, it is predominantly represented in the media by white, seemingly middle-class females. Is zero waste really a lifestyle for everybody? Or just the more affluent few, or those with more time on their hands to spend traipsing to the various trendy organic stores and making DIY skincare products from scratch?

I wanted to explore this further by answering four questions: what is privilege; what is zero waste; is zero waste a lifestyle for the privileged; and ultimately, does it matter?

What is Privilege?

A good definition of privilege is this: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. These “privileges” are often unearned, for example, being born into a particular country or family. Actually, privilege is a lot more complex than simply calling it an “advantage”. Often it’s multiple advantages, based on all kinds of factors.

This short video (less than 2 minutes) does a great job of explaining privilege, and this video below (which is 4 minutes) demonstrates how different people are affected by privilege in society.

In many ways, privilege is an advantage that manifests itself as choice. The more privilege, the more choice.

Having privilege doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It doesn’t mean not having to work hard, or struggle to achieve a goal. It just means having advantages that make these things easier than for someone else without that privilege.

What is Zero Waste?

I think it is important here to explain both “zero waste”, and also “zero waste as represented by the media”, because they are not the same.

“Zero waste” is about sending nothing to landfill, and recycling as little as possible. It’s about rethinking the way we do things: refusing what we don’t need, reducing what we use, reusing what we have, repairing what we can, and recycling as a last resort.

Zero waste is about consuming less, making conscious choices when we do need to make purchases, supporting companies who are trying to do the right thing and reducing our environmental impact. It’s about choosing second-hand, borrowing or making do, choosing things that will last and taking responsibility for our personal choices.

Of course, the media represent zero waste in a slightly different way. Zero waste in the media is the newsworthy bits, the glamorous bits, the bits that invite intrigue and discussion. The media love to talk about and show photographs of glass jars of annual trash, trendy bulk stores and Farmers Markets.

Some of the most popular zero wasters are glamorous Americans who are also extremely photogenic and live in beautiful houses and apartments, and their lifestyles lend themselves to media coverage.

But this is just a snapshot. Even glamorous zero wasters shop at second-hand stores, and compost their food scraps, yet this isn’t talked about nearly as much. Or they choose to buy nothing at all – but where is the photo opportunity there?

Is Zero Waste a Lifestyle for the Privileged?

I would say no. But also yes.

Whilst any “lifestyle” is a choice, and therefore infers some level of privilege, the zero waste lifestyle is the lifestyle of consuming less, of refusing the unnecessary. Of borrowing, and choosing second-hand. These choices are accessible to most.

So no, the zero waste lifestyle is not reserved only for the young, affluent, or those with plenty of time on their hands.

The media might represent the zero waste movement as white, female and middle-class, but scratch beneath this veneer and you will find that zero waste is embraced by men and women, young and old, from all of the continents.

The glass jar full of trash might be the emblem of the movement, but to me, the zero waste lifestyle is a philosophy and a set of principles rather than a destination.

Anyone can subscribe to the ideals.

How far and how quickly we can progress towards these ideals, in practical terms; I do think that is a matter of privilege.

Having a choice – about where we live, where we shop, what we buy and how we spend our money – that is a privilege.

I don’t have children. I don’t have elderly or sick relatives that I need to look after. I don’t have any disabilities, serious health complaints or allergies. I live in a city with plenty of options. I can do a big bulk grocery shop once a month because my budget allows me to, rather than having to go every week. Because the bulk store is very close to my house, I can also pop over there if I’ve forgotten a couple of things.

These factors make it easier for me to reduce my waste, and that is privilege.

Access to bulk stores and Farmers Markets, the choice of grocery store, being able to afford things like stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats, these choices are not available to everyone.

For those of us who do have access to these things, we are privileged.

Of course, zero waste is not about stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats. It’s about working towards reducing waste, consuming less and choosing better. Privilege makes it easier, for sure. The less privilege and the less choice, the harder we have to work for our desired results and vice versa.

Zero waste is no different from any other scenario.

Does it Matter?

I don’t want to talk about whether privilege matters. Rather, I’m interested in why, when it comes to living zero waste, privilege is talked about at all, and more so, why it is seen as a bad thing.

Privilege exists everywhere, that’s just a fact. Yes, privilege tends to mean more resources and more choice. Like many things, zero waste is easier for some than others.

But that shouldn’t stop us doing what we can. Every step is a step in the right direction, and small changes still add up to create a big impact.

Whenever I see negative press or comments about zero waste in the media, the discontent tends to be around privilege; perceived and actual. It is perceived that zero wasters are well off, and therefore the lifestyle is not attainable to most.

Firstly, I disagree that zero waste is only for the affluent. I disagree that we need expensive zero waste “trinkets” (like stainless steel lunchboxes or reusable coffee cups) to live zero waste. They are luxury items.

As someone who owns both a stainless steel lunchbox and a reusable coffee cup, I realise this. The most sustainable and zero waste choice would be for me to not drink coffee at all, and drink only water. But I enjoy an occasional coffee, and so I have a reusable coffee cup.

That doesn’t mean these things are necessities of the zero waste lifestyle.

The “stuff” gets talked about so much because it is a talking point! But talking about the “stuff” can detract from the real message.

 Zero waste is the lifestyle of refusing, rethinking, reducing, reusing and repairing. Of using what we have, and making do.

Buy nothing new and choose second-hand – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Join the library – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Ride a bike and get rid of the car – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Refuse a plastic bag and a plastic drinking straw – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Own less pairs of shoes, choose the best you can afford and wear them often – that’s the zero waste lifestyle.

Let’s not get distracted by the things that others buy. Zero waste is not about what we can afford to buy. It is about what we choose not to buy. Ultimately, zero waste is not a lifestyle of “buying” or “stuff”. The less we buy and the more we make do, the better job we do of living zero waste.

Secondly, I’m at a loss as to why anyone would think it is a bad thing that those with privilege are choosing to live zero waste, use less resources and tread more lightly on the planet. There are plenty of people with privilege exploiting the planet, using more than their fair share of resources, and encouraging consumption.

Why attack or dismiss those using their privilege trying to make the world a better place?

Anyone working towards reducing their impact and sharing what they’ve learned should be applauded, in my view.

I am very aware that I am white, female, middle-class, and living in Australia. The stories that I share are written from this perspective: my lived experience. Most zero waste advocates share their own experiences and lifestyle choices. It’s fact-sharing rather than prescribing a lifestyle for others. We do what we can, and we share what we know.

I do not think that people with privilege talking about and advocating for zero waste is a bad thing. However, if they are the only people talking about zero waste, then that is a bad thing.

I don’t think the issue is one of privilege. I think the real issue is one of representation. That is what matters.

Waste is something we all make decisions about, every single day. We all have the potential to create waste, and the opportunity to avoid it. Reducing waste is accessible to most.

But if zero waste is only talked about (or represented in the media) by one group of people, with one set of experiences, how can we expect everyone to embrace this way of living?

How can we expect those not in this group to relate, or to connect, or to feel inspired?

Whilst the zero waste movement is represented as white, female and middle-class, there will always be people who feel excluded.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if we want the zero waste movement to spread, we need to be supportive, inclusive, and encourage all voices, even those that are different to our own.

We need to recognize that people have different experiences and different journeys.

We need to recognize that we cannot and do not speak for everyone.

Where we have privilege, we need to be aware of it. Not deny that it exists, but recognise that it is there.

Privilege isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s how we use it that counts.

Changing the Story: Talking Rubbish on the Tedx Stage

Taking the stage at last year’s TedX Perth event has to be one of the highlights of the year. On behalf of the zero waste and plastic-free community, the opportunity to share the message about living with less waste with 1700 people was pretty mind-blowing.

From a personal perspective, talking in front of that many people was pretty mind-blowing too!

I never thought of myself as a public speaker. At school, if asked to speak in front of the class, I’d end up bawling until I was allowed to sit back down. (I’m sorry, classmates, for having to put you all through that.) And yes, this was in my teens.

When I first began writing this blog back in 2012 it was completely anonymous.

I’m not someone who loves the limelight.

My first public speaking opportunity came in 2013, when Plastic Free July asked me to talk for 5 minutes in front of 60 people. The only reason I said yes was because I felt that the message I had to share was more important than my personal fear of embarrassment/humiliation/self-doubt.

I remember pacing in the toilets beforehand, heart racing and sweaty palms, panicking about standing in front of all those people.

After that 5 minute talk, where I spoke too fast, flailed my arms wildly and trembled, a radio host who was watching asked me for a pre-recorded interview. I said no.

He approached me again as I was leaving. After some persuasion about how important the message was, I reluctantly agreed.

Then the next community group or organsiation asked. And the next.

And that is how this non-public speaker became a public speaker. Whenever I was asked to speak or present, I’d remember that the story and the cause is the most important thing, and I’d bite my lip and agree.

And in time, with practice, I got better. I learned to slow down. I learned not to panic. I felt more confident in myself, and in what I was talking about.

I still flail my arms uncontrollably! Something to work on ;)

Now, I love to speak to others. It’s a way to amplify the message. I can do what I do, and tell all my friends, but the impact is limited. When I start to speak to people who don’t know me and share my story with them, that’s when the message really starts to spread.

If you’re passionate about the plastic-free life and the zero waste movement (or something else!), then I encourage you to get out there, into your community, and spread the word. You don’t have to take the stage at a big event (at least, not at first)! I have spoken to groups as small as 15 people.

The opportunities are everywhere: at your local library, the farmers’ market, your workplace, a local school or community group. Your message is too important not to share.

You don’t have to be a public speaker. I wasn’t. You don’t have to love standing in front of an audience, or have confidence in spades. I didn’t. I’m just someone with a message I want to share. That’s all you need to get out there and make a difference.

Now I’d love to hear from you! If you get a chance to watch the video, I’d love to hear what you think! And if you’ve tips for keeping flailing arms at bay, I’m all ears ;) Have you personally had any experiences of speaking in public? Is it something that you embrace, or that you dread? Is it something you’d like to do in 2017? How have you managed to conquer your nerves? Do you have tips for anyone starting out? Is it something you still struggle with? Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!